October 19, 2022
Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences. @pravchak
‘Opposition unity’ is a favourite buzzword of India’s political commentariat. The argument is that all the opposition parties across states should unite and present a ‘national’ front for voters, which will be a more potent force against the ruling BJP in the 2024 general elections. In electoral parlance, these commentators claim that pre-poll alliances across all parties to present one united opposition party on the ballot against the BJP has a much better chance of victory. To judge this claim, it is important to understand why there are so many different political parties in India in the first place, the depth of such political diversity, and then the potential to unite voters across these diverse parties.
In the 2019 election, across all of India’s states and territories, there were 27 political parties that got more than 10% of votes in at least one state. To put this in context, most large democracies in the world have only two political parties. Germany is the most diverse, with four political parties that got more than 10% of votes in at least one province in the 2021 election. By this measure, India’s political landscape is seven times more diverse than the next most diverse democracy in the world.
Perhaps more surprising is the fact that India’s political diversity has only increased over the years, not reduced. In the 2004 election, there were six parties that got more than 10 million (one crore) votes; in 2019, there were 11. Similarly, 24 parties got more than 10% of votes in at least one state in 2004, which increased to 27 parties in 2019. The first-past-the-post electoral system leads to a much larger share of seats for a smaller share of votes, which gives the illusion of one-party dominance in Indian politics. Contrary to this perception, the truth is, more Indians vote for more parties now than they did a decade ago.
India’s staggering and increasing political diversity is evidently a reflection of its underlying plurality, disenchantment with established parties, and a yearning for better representation through newer parties. When 10 million Indians vote for a party in a general election or a significant 10% of voters in a particular state choose one party among all the other choices, there is a more profound reason for it than revealed by a mere vote-share number. Ten million people don’t vote for a political party just flippantly or randomly. When voters demonstrate a clear desire for more political diversity, then how can the same set of voters be bunched up in the garb of opposition unity and expected to vote similarly in unison? The notion that the choices of such a large number of voters are fungible enough to be transferred easily to another party arithmetically is a big leap of faith. The expectation of seamless vote-transfer when parties enter into pre-election alliances rests on the false belief that vote shares are just random numbers without meaning. The idea of Opposition unity belies the reality of India’s growing political diversity.
The other important supposition behind the idea of Opposition unity is that a national united Opposition and a leader will influence voters across state boundaries to vote cohesively. The implicit assumption among its proponents seems to be that an alliance between, say, the Samajwadi party, the BSP and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh will somehow persuade a BJP voter in Karnataka to vote for the Congress. This, too, calls for a big leap of faith in the backdrop of extreme cultural, linguistic, social and economic differences among India’s states. When the average voter in Madikeri in Karnataka has almost nothing in common with the average voter in Madhubhan in UP, why would a pre-poll alliance among three parties in UP influence her vote in Karnataka? India’s political history shows that it is very difficult for political parties to transcend the tall walls of diversity of voters across India’s states, which also explains the mushrooming of a plethora of political parties.
The call for a ‘One nation, one Opposition’ is as glib and fallacious as the BJP’s dogma of a ‘One nation, one language’, or one identity or one festival. Ironically, the proponents of Opposition unity (‘One nation, one Opposition’) are also the ones who cry hoarse about the ruling party’s ‘One nation, one policy’ push for uniformity across India’s diverse states. If one policy or one culture or one identity is not viable for a plural India, then it follows logically that a one united national political front is also a conceptual aberration. For politics is nothing but a manifestation of people’s culture, identity, aspirations and choices.
Opposition unity is not a robust political strategy but an opportunistic, clever-by-half electoral strategy. Its success hinges on two risky bets – one, luring a disgruntled BJP voter to a united Opposition ticket, and two, hoping that the existing non-BJP voter will seamlessly transfer her vote to a united opposition, even if the party of her choice is not on the ballot. Political scientists that cite the example of the 1989 elections of a United Front miss that uniting voters across 26 different political parties now is much more difficult than uniting voters across 10 parties in 1989.
Of course, one can reasonably argue that in the absence of any other electoral strategy for 2024, a ‘One nation, one Opposition’ arithmetic hope is worth the risks. Then, one has to be clear that it is not some sanjeevani for the Opposition as it is made out to be by commentators but more a bet that rests on hope and a prayer. But as the aphorism goes, ‘Hope is not a strategy’.
(Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences.)